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Archive for Mobile technology


We’ve got only about a week left to our Vermont stop, and then we’ll be off again. We’ve been talking on and off about plans for the next year, but they have been rather loose. As usual, we’re mostly winging it. We know that we want to end up in Tucson sometime in October, and we’ve got stops in Denver and a few other cities. The details have been left vague until today.

For trip planning I find Google Maps to be extremely useful. You just click the “Get directions” link and then input the zip code or city/state of the start and end points. Additional stops can be easily added, and Google has a really neat feature which allows you to drag the suggested route to explore alternative routings. The total distance and estimated time is instantly calculated for each possible route.

In about five minutes this morning I put together this plan for our first week on the road. We’re eyeballing stops in Herkimer NY, Cazenovia NY, Limestone PA, Lagrange OH, and Jackson Center OH. No big towns on this trip! We might add in a visit to Corning NY to see the Corning Glass Museum again too, or maybe Letchworth State Park or Allegany State Park.


The plan is not finalized but I love how easy it is to play around with stops and routes using Google Maps. It allows me to get creative about our trip planning. With a list of cities for people we know (or want to meet), we can see who is within reasonable reach. Sometimes the most wonderful coincidences arise, bringing us to friends we didn’t think we’d see. That’s when technology really starts to make a difference.

Speaking of creativity, I want to show you some of Emma’s recent artwork. She has recently been working with some polymer clay called Sculpey. I may just be another overly proud parent, or perhaps easily impressed because I am not competent at artistic things, but when I saw the miniatures she was creating (out of her own head, no books or pictures), I was blown away.


(Click for larger views.) These little figures are about 1″ long each (the unicorn is about 2 inches). They are intricately detailed with colors (like the striped horn on the unicorn), and textures that she applies with a toothpick. What freaks me out is that nobody told her what to make, or how to make it. She just got hold of this clay and starting making them. The middle one is an Orca whale splashing out of the water with a wave behind it. The action of it reminds me of a Remington bronze.

The things that come out of kids’ heads are amazing, in what they do and what they say. It’s the kind of creativity that adults often pooh-pooh when they see it, and then spend their adult lives trying to recapture. Anyone in a creative business could do well to think more like a kid. That includes me.

Mobile printing

On Monday I received a new piece of technology that I’ve long needed: a “mobile printer”. When we first started traveling full-time it seemed to me that all printers where mobile once you put them in a travel trailer. My HP 1022 laser printer has been “mobile” since I bought it in Springfield MO during the International Rally in 2005. But the trusty 1022, while on the small side for laser printers, is still fairly bulky, and it doesn’t fit in any of the trailer’s interior storage compartments. It has been riding across the country on the floor of the bedroom for three years, right where I can accidentally step on it as I get out of bed.

h470-printer.gifAfter three years and 60,000+ miles of bouncing down the road, it now has a cracked paper tray and a few other bruises. More importantly, I’m tired of it taking up my floor space. I’m going to retire it to home-based use back in Tucson, and switch to the sexy new HP H470. It folds up into a very compact package that I can store almost anywhere, plus it has two huge advantages for people like me who work in a tiny space.

Number 1 is the fact that it can run off 12 volt power or an internal battery. I decided to go with the internal battery, so I can use it when we are boondocking. A big issue I’ve had with the 1022 laser printer is that it requires up to 300 watts of AC power when running, and being a fussy piece of electronics, it wants that power to be of the best quality, meaning a pure sine wave. It doesn’t like the square wave produced by most cheap inverters. To run it we’d either need a very expensive high-quality inverter with 300-watt capability.

Instead, an ink jet makes a lot more sense. Ink jets run on relatively little power so a battery is feasible, and they don’t mind cheezy square wave (misleadingly called “modified sine wave”) inverters. I’m going to run my ink jet on the rechargeable battery because it is more convenient than wiring up the power cable when I want to print a single page.

Number 2 advantage is that the HP H470 has wireless capability. That makes it really easy to use. I’ll just take it out of the padded sleeve (which Eleanor is going to make for me), drop it on the bed and insert some paper. Voila — ready to print. No cables to the power or to my computer. Wireless is always good in a small space, especially since I often have to work on the bed or from outside. It’s also nice for Eleanor, since we can now both use the printer at the same time from different locations in or around the trailer.

Human power!

Friday the 13th has never been an unlucky day for me. In fact, I usually have great experiences on that day. I even turned age 13 on Friday the 13th.

Today things worked out well again. I went to the dentist and he found no cavities.   I went for a haircut and … well …     OK, at least I don’t have any cavities.

After that overhaul, I went looking for my friend Dave and found an interesting technology in the bargain.   Dave runs a small company in Ferrisburg VT that makes incredible “stuff.” I can’t describe the mission of the company any more precisely, because nearly everything they do involves some physical or engineering principle that I never heard of. Their products tend to be incredibly useful and obscure.

For example, they make some sort of specialized intelligent pump that goes down in a well and sucks up spilled petroleum that is floating on top of the water table, without also sucking up the water. They make a device called an ultrasound wattmeter, too, which is apparently useful in calibrating therapeutic ultrasound machines. It’s all magic to me.

Since I haven’t seen Dave in a year, I dropped by the shop to see what the latest gizmo was. It’s a bit like dropping by the shop of Caractacus Potts. There are all sorts of machines and interesting-looking devices on benches. Even more interesting are the clever re-uses he comes up with, in support of new product development. I remember we once gave Dave a 1960s-era Thermador oven from our house and he used it for strange experiments. I think it might still be there, somewhere between the CNC machine and the pile of Sunny Delight jugs they collected for some purpose, not far from the heap of obsolete computer displays that they are no doubt scavenging for precious metals.

ferrisburg-rich-generator-bike.jpgThe latest is a multi-year engagement in “human generated power.” I had no idea what this meant until Dave showed me the product. It’s basically a small generator attached to a bike stand. You ride your bike and produce 60-100 watts of power while getting good exercise.

It turns out that people on sailing yachts don’t get much exercise and they are often challenged to generate electrical power, so they buy this product. In remote parts of the world it also comes in handy. Dave’s company recently sold a bunch of them to the Siberian forestry service, for backup power to communications equipment. (More)

Educators like them too, because with a little accessory light bulbs attached to the system, kids can see for themselves how much power it takes to run those lights they keep leaving on. With a pair of bulbs, one 12v incandescent and one 12v CFL, the huge energy savings of CFLs can be clearly demonstrated.


I could see using this as an adjunct power source to my solar panels. With steady cycling, I can produce almost as much power as one of my panels in full sun at noon, which is a pretty decent amount of power for RV purposes. I’d have to pedal for hours to fully recharge my batteries, but a 30-minute workout each day would still be a nice boost on a cloudy day.

The problem for RV’ers is that the generator and stand are a bit bulky and heavy. Also, I don’t have a full-size bike with me. But I love the concept. I’d rather bicycle for 30 minutes than run a generator for 30 minutes. And I could see telling Emma, “Sure, you can watch a movie. Just get on the bike and make the power.” That would help take the excess energy out of her — and put it in our batteries instead.

Low voltage

I mentioned last week that the temperature in Vermont in June is unpredictable.   Case in point: last week we had several days of days so cold that I had to run the furnace to keep the trailer warm enough for me to type, and now for the past four days it has been between 85 and 90 degrees at the lake. It’s the temperature equivalent of “feast or famine,” except it’s “roast or freeze.”

The current “roast” phase means the people inland, and especially up in Vermont’s “Queen City” of Burlington, where pavement abounds, are really suffering.   It’s always hotter away from the lake.   We’ve got 55-degree heat sink about three miles wide and 400 feet deep right in front of the house, and it takes a bit of the edge off.   Lots of cool green lawns help too, but the humidity is horrible.   People talk about Florida humidity, and I agree it’s intense, but try a summer in northern Vermont sometime.   I have to be careful not to inhale too deeply, lest I drown.

So today I finally broke down and tried to fire up the air conditioner.   (I’m working in the Airstream all day because it is quiet and free from distractions.) The problem is that we are on the end of a 50-foot extension cord from the garage, and that garage outlet is probably at the end of a long line of electrical code violations.

The Dometic air conditioner installed in our Airstream, and most other late-model Airstreams, requires a minimum of 103.5 volts.   Any lower than that and you’ll burn out the compressor motor, and that’s an expensive mistake.   Last summer I bought a digital voltage meter which stays plugged into an outlet on the wall, specifically so I can watch suspicious campground voltage and find problems before they cost me money.

You might be surprised how often campgrounds have inadequate electrical service, but far worse are the courtesy parking situations.   After all, most people don’t build their homes to with dedicated electrical circuits for visiting RVs, and that means low voltage is often a problem.   Since homeowners rarely have a clue what sort of power they can supply, it’s sort of a “moocher beware” situation.

The problem with the voltage meter is that it can only tell you what the voltage is at that exact moment.   It can’t predict what the voltage will drop to when you put a load on it, like an air conditioner.   Think of voltage like water pressure from a hose.   There might be lots of pressure in the hose when the faucet is closed, but when you open the faucet, the pressure could quickly bleed off and leave you with barely a trickle. Turning on an appliance that uses electrical energy is just like opening that faucet.

So my technique to avoid expensive problems is to switch the air conditioner on and watch the volt meter carefully.   When the A/C compressor fires up, the voltage will drop.   If it drops to no less than 104 volts, you’re theoretically OK (although I am always leery of getting even close to that number; my personal limit is 109 volts to allow for variations in line voltage).     If the voltage is unacceptable, I snap off the A/C switch immediately.

No surprise that today the voltage was ridiculously poor, in fact the worst I’ve ever seen.   The moment the compressor started the voltage dropped to 89 volts, struggled up to about 95 volts after a second or two, and then I shut it off.   No air conditioning for me!

Considering that we are coming here annually and staying for weeks at a time, I could see installing a 30-amp dedicated plug for the Airstream, as we did in Arizona.   But the location of the power meter would require us to bury a new line under the driveway and install a subpanel on a post.   Beside the mess and expense, it would be a big psychological step for our fiercely independent family, since having our own power outlet would almost akin to moving back into my parents’ house. It’s probably asking enough that we are leaving an antique Honda next to their garage for the winter.

And really, all that trouble for air conditioning just for a few days each summer?   Maybe I should just go jump in the lake to cool off.   I’m sure that’s what Dad would say.   He’s probably right.

Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park NY

Friday was a fairly lousy “day at the office” as a result of a few frustrating jobs I had to do, even though I was in an Airstream at a state park and not in an office.   People often think that because in traveling around and working from different locations, problems are somehow lessened.   Actually, when things go poorly, you have to face them just as you would anywhere else.   You’re still you, and the problem is still the same.

I guess the major compensation is having the option to walk out the door at the end of the day and take a walk around an interesting new place, and have the first long uninterrupted conversation with your spouse in months.   At least, that’s what it was for me.

And we had the pleasure of our friends Rick and Sandi showing up around 7:30 in their Airstream Safari 23, to camp right across the way from us for the weekend.   So things bloomed quickly with dinner and conversation.   Before we knew it, we were yawning and realizing it was 11 p.m.   That’s why you didn’t get a blog entry last night.

This morning we woke up late and had a little breakfast in the trailer.   I tapped quietly on Rick & Sandi’s door around 9:10 a.m., but hearing no response, walked back to our trailer.   Eleanor was working on a key lime pie for dessert this evening, and I got a chance to play ukulele and read a trashy sci-fi novel.   Nice morning.

It turned out Rick & Sandi were awake when I came by but simply didn’t hear me.   We discovered this when Sandi came over to invite us to a massive Rick-crafted breakfast at 10:00.   Communications breakdown, I guess, but we worked it out by having a second breakfast that was so hearty it lasted us until dinner.


Our only plan for the day was to visit the Vanderbilt mansion (which has for 68 years been a national park site).   The mansion is the smallest of about 40 Vanderbilt mansions that were built in the 19th century, and it is still 50,000 square feet, originally on 700 acres of land.   It’s a nice peek at the Gilded Era lifestyle.

hyde-park-rr-apple-vending.jpgNot far away there’s a historic railway station by the Hudson River, which is probably overlooked by most people but worth a quick stop.   There we found the strangest find of the day: a 1960s era Vendo machine that dispenses fresh apples.   I used to own a 1963 Vendo Coke machine, but have never seen or heard of one that sells apples.   This one is an antique, but the idea is not gone.   Cornell University has one today.

mills-norrie-rick-sandi.jpgThe rest of the day was completely blown off with a three-hour visit to Dunkin’ Donuts, some iced coffees, and a long talk about everything in the world.     As we got back to the   state park a fast-moving line of thunderstorms rolled over, but in an hour the rain was over and it was late enough that we needed to be working on dinner: marinated flank steak by Rick, mashed potatoes, squash and zucchini by Sandi, and Eleanor’s key lime pie. And so another day in the state park flew by …

Solar report: With heavy tree cover we’ve picked up hardly any power during the day.   Our first evening it was cold, 46 degrees, and setting the furnace at 56 degrees plus some lights cost us about 30 amp hours.   I used a lot of power working on the laptop all day Friday, but cloud cover kept us from needing the furnace that night.   At this point, after dinner and dishes, we are down about 82 amp-hours, which is nearly half of our “safe” capacity.   (We have more power in reserve but avoid using it, to get maximum life out of our batteries.)

That’s no problem at all, even with a third night and lots of power-hungry laptop use.   I track this only because it’s useful to understand the power we need on a routine basis, so we can plan major boondocking episodes at national parks under challenging (no sun) conditions.

Tornado warning

We had two near-misses today.

We stopped at the Wal-Mart in Morehead City, NC, because our ferry reservation from Cedar Key to Ocracoke is for 2:00 pm on Monday.     Nothing to do for a few hours but hang out, which I was really looking forward to after driving about 280 miles from Santee SC today.

One thing I had wanted to do for a while was install the Doran 360RV tire pressure monitoring system we obtained last week in Florida.   Yes, after all those tire failures and flats, we are finally doing something about it.   While I can’t stop the nails and screws from puncturing our tires, at least I can know we’ve got one before a tire blows out.

The 360RV consists of four pressure sensors which screw onto the tire stems (with locking collars so they don’t come off), and a monitor for the truck.   John Irwin had emailed me a few days ago to say he, too, had gotten a Doran unit, and today he wrote that the installation was “absolutely child’s play.”   That was enough to encourage me to open the box and put the sensors on.

The first sensor I installed, on the left rear wheel, immediately caused the monitor to start beeping an alarm.   It showed 32 psi in the tire, which is painfully low.   I thought, “Darned thing … already giving me bad information,” and then I noticed the tire did look low.     So I checked it with my digital gauge.   Yep, 32 psi when it should have been at least 60 psi.

So I started my relationship with the Doran 360RV by owing it an apology.   It was right to be alarmed about the state of that tire.

“Bob,” a motorhome owner who was parked next to us, lent me his air compressor and a power connection to his generator. (I do have a 12v compressor but it is rather slow.)   I pumped all the tires up to exactly 65 psi, and then checked the suspicious one for what I knew had to be there.

And there it was: a screw, deeply embedded in the tread, right on the edge of the sidewall where it can’t be patched.   Another $150 tire gone.   That’s the fifth tire this year, and it’s only May.

So let me just get this off my chest now.   ALL YOU PEOPLE WITH SCREWS: PLEASE KEEP THEM OFF THE ROADS!

This was the first near-miss.   I say that because if I hadn’t been installing the Doran 360RV, I probably would not have noticed that tire until later, and it could have shredded on the road.   Did I need further evidence that we needed a tire pressure monitor?

A few minutes later, Eleanor came out to say there was a tornado warning for the area.   I watched the radar loop on TV and the weatherman was talking about three “hook echoes” in the radar.   Hook echoes are the signature of tornados.   Tornados make RVs and virtually everything else go flying.   Plus, the storms had the potential for 65 MPH winds and nickel-sized hail.   I wanted to drive away, but trapped between a line of heavy thunderstorms and the coast, we had no place to go.

So I came to the conclusion that we needed to evacuate the Airstream for the safety of the concrete block Wal-Mart.   We packed up the dinner we were about to eat, grabbed our rain jackets, and went inside. I also took the precaution of shutting off the propane at the tanks, in case the worst-case scenario happened.

Now, if I had thought about it some more, I would have taken a couple of other things, too.   Our walkie-talkies would have been handy if we were separated. Our cell phones worked but the cell phone tower was right next to the Airstream, so if one went, the other probably would too.   I also would have grabbed a flashlight, in case the power went out in the Wal-Mart.

This was our second near-miss.   For about 20 minutes, we had just rain and a spectacular lightning show.   Eleanor wandered into the store to ask about tires, and then suddenly, “it” hit.   The parking lot disappeared in black rain, the windows began to shake, and I heard a rumble like a freight train.   I remembered that people often describe the arrival of a tornado sounding like that.   I grabbed Emma by the jacket and we went to a spot I’d previously picked out inside the store, where two cinder-block walls formed an L and where there were tables to duck under.

I have to admit that it was terrifying for a minute or two. People were starting to panic, while others were obliviously trying to exit the store into the vortex.   We heard several loud bangs, and then the sliding doors in front of the store blew outward.   The managers secured the doors and locked them while we hung back in our safe spot wondering if it was time to duck under the table yet.

I was worried about Bob and his wife, parked out there by our Airstream, but in the midst of this, I saw Bob fire up his motorhome and drive over to Lowes. He parked under their pick-up area’s awning, safe from hail and mostly in the lee of the wind.

When it was over, I surveyed the parking lot.   A lot of carts got loose and damaged cars, but the worst happened to a different motorhome parked about 300 yards from   our Airstream.   It was blown over, and slid down a shallow embankment to come to rest in the Lowes parking lot.   When I got there the police were already on the scene and the occupants had exited by breaking through the windshield.

I’m pretty sure they got hit by at least a strong downburst, if not a bit of tornadic activity.   The motorhome was facing into the prevailing wind, whereas the Airstream got it directly broadside.   The Airstream survived just fine (as far as I can tell in the dark), but the motorhome took it hard.   Was it the aerodynamic advantage of the Airstream, or just luck?

Tomorrow we will recover from all of this. I’ll go shopping for a tire and install it on the trailer, and inspect the Airstream for damage on the windward side.   With luck it will be a bright sunny day and this little nightmare will be behind us.   But two near-misses in one day … it makes me think.

South Llano River State Park

Coming out of Big Bend I am always reminded of why visitation in the park is not as high as more northern parks. Big Bend is on the way to nowhere, since it borders Mexico and there are no roads across the border there. You have to detour at least 100 miles to get there, and coming out on Rt 385 back to Rt 90 or I-10 involves a couple of hours of driving through a lot of empty desert.

Once we reached Ft Stockton at I-10, around lunchtime, I was pleased to find that my theory about the magazine being somewhat more self-sufficient had held true. I had only two voice mail messages, and neither were business-related. But I didn’t bother to open up the laptop and check email just yet, because I knew I’d have an onslaught of at least a a hundred emails, and probably more.

On I-10 in west Texas the speed limit runs between 80 and 85 MPH (70 -75 for trucks) during the day. It’s tempting to try to tow the Airstream that fast, but there are several good reasons not to. First off, the trailer tire manufacturers recommend limiting speed to 65 MPH. Given all our tire problems lately, I am heeding their advice. The prospect of a blowout still scares me. Second, our fuel economy plummets. At 72 MPH, we burn about 35% more fuel than we do at 65 MPH, and even with all 305 horses pulling hard, the Armada has to downshift frequently to third gear to maintain that speed on hills.

A third reason used to be that the combined rig didn’t handle well at high speed, but that’s no longer true. When we first started tow without the Hensley hitch, 64 MPH was our maximum speed and 59 MPH was max in any sort of wind. With the Hensley we can go as fast as we want with superb handling at all times, but I still prefer to keep it at 65 MPH or less for fuel economy.

Speaking of fuel economy, we paid $3.89 for a gallon of fuel at Rio Grande Village. I’d rather get 10 miles out of that gallon (cost per mile: 39 cents) than 8 miles (cost per mile: 48 cents). When you realize that going 72 MPH saves us 27 minutes on a 300 mile trip (versus going 65 MPH) but costs us $27 more, the choice is pretty obvious.

South Llano River State Park is a fine place to camp, with big grassy campsites and lots of shade trees, but I found no usable Verizon signal here, which meant my phone and Internet connection were inoperable. There’s no wifi to be found either. A neighboring Airstream owner, Sharon, came by and said she’s been using the library’s wifi in town. She’s been here for two weeks waiting for parts to arrive for her late-model 20-foot Safari, which was damaged on the way here.

Sharon’s predicament brings up a cautionary note. The Garmin GPS that we and many others use is a great tool ““ most of the time. But you have to sanity-check it, especially when getting off the highway and going to state parks. The GPS is programmed so that it will choose either the quickest (time) or shortest (mileage) route. This means it will send you down a bumpy dirt road over a one-lane bridge if it calculates that this will shave 10 feet or 10 seconds off your overall trip.

That’s what it did to Sharon. Her GPS said to turn left, and she found herself facing a dead-end that wasn’t in the GPS database “¦ at night “¦ with no one in the truck to help her. She tried to back up in the dark alone and met a tree, which left her with $12,000 worth of aluminum damage and an enforced two-week stay here at South Llano River State Park.

The best strategy is to ignore your GPS when you start seeing the brown state park signs. Those signs will bring you in the best possible way. Don’t trust “Garminita” when she tells you to take a suspicious-looking left down a one-lane road. She’s a handy navigator but she doesn’t know you’re driving a long tall rig that can’t turn around on a dime.

llano-river-sp-sharon.jpgTwo weeks of intervening time has given poor Sharon a chance to get over her disaster, and she’s been enjoying the peacefulness of the park while she works remotely on magazine designs for her clients. Since she’s a portable professional like me, the time has been useful and frankly there are a lot worse places to be “stuck” for two weeks than South Llano River State Park.

For us, however, a move is imminent. I need to spend some heavy time finalizing details for the Summer magazine. It is heading to the printer tomorrow. That means we will move to somewhere that I can get online for a few days.

On Wednesday we will arrive in a favorite spot, Pecan Grove in Austin, for at least two nights. This shady little oasis in the heart of Austin is one of the few urban campgrounds left. I’m hoping some of our friends in the Austin area will come out to meet us there.

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